Working for a big company can be a very different experience
from working for a small firm. I have friends who work in the IT departments
for huge companies. Often, such companies have volume licensing agreements with
Microsoft, which means that they always get the latest software as soon as it
is released. When such companies do get new applications or operating systems,
they typically think nothing of dropping big bucks to send the administrative
staff off to training or to bring a certified trainer in house.
The experience at smaller companies is often much different
though. There are exceptions to every rule, but generally, small companies have
almost no IT budget. Such companies often employee a couple of techies whose
job it is to keep everything running. However, there is usually no budget or
incentive to keep the software current. In fact, upgrading to a new operating
system or to a new version of an application almost always requires months of
heavily justified arguments from the IT staff. Because the company is not
interested in keeping software current, there is no reason for the IT staff to
keep their training current.
I have actually worked for both types of companies at
various points in my career. I quickly learned that unless I kept my knowledge
current that I would never be able to get another IT job anywhere else. Since
management wasn’t about to pay to send me to any type of training, I knew that
I was on my own. I had to figure out a way of getting the best possible
training for the least amount of money, until I could find another job that
would help me to keep my education current.
In the end, I ended up working for myself, but the lessons
that I learned about keeping my education current proved to be valuable.
Because I work for myself, I have to pay for my own training, so I am still out
to get the best training at the best prices. In this article, I want to share
with you some of the techniques that I use to maintain my education. Hopefully,
you will find some of these techniques valuable.
Be a Book Worm
My first low budget training technique is that I am a book
worm. I buy and read any computer book that I can get my hands on. Granted,
books can get expensive, but if you look at the amount of useful information
found in a good computer book, the price of the book seems rather
insignificant. This is especially true if you compare the price of a book to
most training classes. I will talk about the books in more detail later on, but
I wanted to mention it up front since it is such a huge part of my method for
maintaining my education.
Subscribe to Periodicals and E-mail Newsletters
Another thing that I do to keep my education current is to
subscribe to various periodicals and E-mail based newsletters. The trick here
though is not to over subscribe. There are so many great periodicals out there
that it is tempting to just subscribe to all of them. However, I purposely
limit myself so that I won’t subscribe to more than I can comfortably read.
Look For Free Training Events
Yes, you read it correctly. There are free training events
out there, and I recommend taking advantage of as many of them as you possibly
can. One excellent source of free training is IT professional groups. For
example, I am a member of the Carolina IT
Professional Group. This group has a meeting once a month. Meetings usually
consist of an industry expert discussing some new IT related product or
concept. It’s basically free training.
Granted, North and South Carolina are a bit out of reach for
most of you, but the Carolina IT Professional Group belongs to a much larger
organization called Culminis. Culminis
has IT professional groups all over the world, and many of these groups have
educational meetings similar to the ones that the group I belong to have.
Microsoft also puts on free training events all over the
country. You can access a list of free events in your area at Microsoft’s Web site. Microsoft also
puts on free Webcasts on a regular basis, and you can find information on those
at this Web site as well.
One of the things that I have come to realize about
Microsoft’s free training events is that although they are usually of very good
quality, I have trouble making myself go to them. After all, no one is
requiring me to go to the training classes, so why in the world would I want to
get up early and drive for an hour to go to a training class?
Since I have a motivational problem, I take advantage of the
fact that Microsoft has these classes all over the country. There’s nothing
thrilling for me about going to a training class in South Carolina where I
live, but I love Miami Beach! Therefore, I will typically arrange to go to
Miami whenever Microsoft is having a free training event. That way, I have an
incentive to make myself go to class. I reward myself with some beach time or
with the Miami nightlife after having gone to class.
Attend Specialized Events
So far I have focused primarily on free or low cost ways of
keeping your training current. However, twice a year I go to some of the bigger
trade shows because they offer knowledge that you simply can’t get anywhere
else. These shows can be expensive and may strain your budget, but they can be
well worth the investment.
The first show that I make sure never to miss is Microsoft’s
TechEd. Admission to TechEd is almost $2,000, but in my opinion it is very
much worth it. Not only are the presentations excellent, you always have a
chance to speak one on one with the various product groups. I always come to
TechEd with a long list of tough questions and I always manage to get them all
The other show that I never miss is COMDEX. Admission to COMDEX is usually fairly
cheap (under $50), but I consider it to be one of the more expensive shows,
just because of the cost of staying in Las Vegas for a week.
The reason why I consider COMDEX to be so important is
because all of the hardware and software companies come to show their latest
wares. It gives you a chance to get a first hand look at all of the latest
technology, and it gives you a really good feel for the current trends in the
COMDEX was canceled in 2004 because COMDEX 2003 was widely
considered to be disastrous. However, COMDEX 2005 is scheduled for November.
The issues that made COMDEX 2003 such a poor show are supposed to have been
Build a Home Network
It won’t do you much good to learn about all of the latest
software if you never get to try out your knowledge. I recommend building a
small, home network, just so that you can gain experience working with various
network operating systems and applications.
I’ll admit that Microsoft server products are expensive, but
there are ways of building your home network on a budget. One way is to take
advantage of trial software. Microsoft provides downloadable trials for most of
their products. These are full featured products, but the software usually
expires after a few months.
Your other option for low budget software is to order an
MSDN subscription. An MSDN subscription can be expensive, but even the most
expensive MSDN subscription (MSDN Universal) costs a lot less than even a
single copy of Windows Server 2003. The other nice thing about having an MSDN
subscription is that Microsoft sends you all of the latest software each month.
Try To Get Some First Hand Knowledge
When I quit my day job and decided to become a full time
freelance writer I was absolutely thrilled at the thought of never having to
deal with another end user again for as long as I lived. At that time, Windows
2000 was brand new, and I used my free time and the techniques that I already
talked about to become a Windows 2000 expert.
About a year later, a friend of mine won a contract for a
fairly high profile Windows deployment. He was a little short handed and since
I was basically a walking Windows 2000 encyclopedia at that point, he asked me
to help out with the project. I wasn’t thrilled about having to work outside of
my home, and I definitely didn’t need the money, but I’ve never been the type
to turn my back on a friend, so I agreed to help him out.
On the first day of the project, I had an unexpected
realization. Although I knew Windows 2000 inside out, I had never touched a
real world deployment. Sure, I had a test lab in my basement with a bunch of
computers running Windows 2000, but there are a lot of things that you have to
deal with on real world networks that you will never encounter in a lab
Even though I probably had more Windows related textbook
knowledge than anyone else involved in the project, I felt like a fish out of
water. I eventually managed to complete the project, but most of the time while
I was working on it, I felt like an idiot because I had so little real world
experience with the Windows 2000 operating system.
This taught me a valuable lesson. Lab work is no replacement
for real world experience. To this day, I still hate working outside of my
home, but a couple of times a year I will undertake small consulting projects
just so that I can see what it’s like to apply my knowledge to real world
projects. Most of the time when I do projects like this, it will be on a
voluntary basis for non-profit organizations. I have found that doing volunteer
work for non-profit agencies has less pressure than real consulting jobs
because they aren’t paying you by the hour (or at all). That means that I can
really take my time and focus on really trying to understand anything strange
that I might run into.
How In The World Can You Remember All of That?
Being that I work out of my home, I have one room of my
house set up as a library. It is filled with shelves that are jam packed with
computer books. When ever family or friends come over for the first time, they
always ask me two questions. First, have you read all of these? Second, how can
you remember all of that material?
These two simple questions actually hold the key to one of
the biggest tricks that I use for staying current with my education. In answer
to the first question, yes I have read all of the books on my shelf. Actually,
that isn’t entirely true, but I have read the vast majority of them. The reason
why I can’t say that I have read all of the books is because I am constantly
buying new books. I just bought four more Windows books yesterday, and I haven’t
had a chance to even open them yet. I am hoping to put a good dent in reading
them this weekend though.
The other question regarding how I can possibly remember all
of the material that I read has an answer that you might not expect. The answer
is, not only do I not remember all of the material, I don’t even try to
For a long time, I tried to remember every last detail of
various Windows and NetWare operating systems. Eventually though, the task of
trying to remember all of that information became overwhelming. I now take a
totally different approach to digesting new information.
As I read or hear information in a training class, some of
the material really sinks in, but most of it doesn’t. I do pay enough attention
though that even if I can’t recall all of the specific details about a topic,
if someone brings the topic up, I at least remember reading about it, and I
know where to go look if I need more information.
Of course ignorance is a poor long term solution in the IT
industry. Just because I don’t try to retain every last detail of everything
that I read doesn’t mean that I want to remain ignorant. To fully digest a
topic, I usually rely on repetition. For example, the first time that I read a
complex description of a new feature, I’ll probably remember about a tenth of
the material. However, I read a lot and attend a lot of training classes. It’s
only a matter of time before I run into the material again in another book or
in another class. At that time, I am already a little bit familiar with the
topic, so the new material enhances what I already know about the topic. Usually
by the third or fourth time that I run into a topic, I have a thorough
understanding of the topic and remember almost all of the details.
I know that this technique isn’t for everyone. For example,
it definitely wouldn’t be appropriate for someone who is studying for a
certification exam. However, for me this technique provided me with a way to
remember technical material with very little effort. Sure, I read a lot of
books and go to a lot of classes, but those are all things that I would
normally be doing any way.